Wisconsin's offense struggled last week in part because senior quarterback Scott Tolzien struggled on first-down passing, converting on third down and simply hitting his receivers. One week later, Tolzien fixed all his problems and it was no surprise to see the UW offense click.
Tolzien was crisp against a porous Gophers defense, completing 17 of 23 passes for 223 yards and a touchdown pass to Jared Abbrederis, the first touchdown by a UW receiver this year. Tolzien wasn't sacked and led an offense that didn't turn the ball over for the fourth straight game, a good sign with No.1 Ohio State coming to campus Saturday.
In order to beat the Buckeyes, however, Tolzien and the UW offense can't have a second quarter like they did Saturday. Wisconsin held the ball for just 2 minutes, 26 seconds on the field, in part because Tolzien misfired on two third-down passes, resulting in two three-and-outs.
The final series of the half was a productive two minute drill, as Tolzien connected with David Gilreath –one of five UW receivers to catch a pass - for 36 yards. That gave UW the ball at the Gophers' 32, but Philip Welch missed his 49-yard attempt well left. When UW did get into the redzone, it was a perfect 6-for-6.
After grading him hard last week, Tolzien shook off a bad performance and got UW an important victory.
Minnesota had the 96th ranked rush defense heading into Saturday's game, so it was no shock to see Wisconsin dominate the ground game. After being stymied last week, John Clay tied a career high with three touchdown runs, ran for 111 yards and sparked UW's offense at the beginning of the third quarter.
James White broke multiple ankles on a couple of his runs, setting new career highs in carries (19) and yards (118) in his way to a two touchdown performance. In his last three games, White has 361 yards and eight touchdowns. Saturday marked the second time in three games that Clay and White have both eclipsed the century mark.
As good as White was running, he continues to improve in the blocking game, picking up blitzing linebackers on more than one occasion. That factor adds more reason why the true freshman will earn more playing time.
After a two-drop performance and hardly being targeted, Nick Toon did his best Keyshawn Johnson imitation in calling for the ball. Saturday, he made sure he took advantage of the opportunity. Toon had a team-high six catches for 52 yards, one more catch than he had overall coming in after missing three games due to a turf toe injury.
Kendricks, after being held to 17 receiving yards against Michigan State, had a team-best 75 yards, including hauling in a perfect 32-yard pass down the Minnesota sideline, getting UW into the red zone.
Abbrederis continues to impress in his first season on the field, catching three passes for 33 yards, including his first collegiate score in the first quarter. Abbrederis has bypassed three senior wide receivers to become the No.2 receiver in the UW offense. One of those receivers (Anderson) only had one catch for four yards, but had a number of good down-field blocks that set up some big plays.
J.J. Watt led the line with six tackles but it was the other things he did that made him standout. Watt registered 1.5 tackles for loss, including a sack, and made a big momentum-changing play early in the game. With Minnesota not wanting to test its suspect kicking game, the Gophers went for it and quarterback Adam Weber was forced to scramble with no opening down the field. Weber might have made it had Watt not tripped him for no gain.
The Badgers drove 69 yards in eight plays for their first touchdown after that stop. Other than Watt, however, the defensive line hasn't generating a lot of stats, as Jordan Kohout and David Gilbert were the next highest with two tackles. More production is sorely needed, which is why the grade is lower here.
The linebackers led the defensive effort that limited Minnesota to 96 rushing yards. Culmer St. Jean had a game-high 10 tackles and Mike Taylor finished with seven, including a collegiate high three for losses. Throw in the fact that Blake Sorensen, a Minnesota native, added six tackles and it was a very productive day for the unit.
The Gophers converted just 3 of 13 third-down chances, but went 3 of 4 on fourth down.
Through three quarters, the only major problem was Minnesota wide receiver MarQueis Gray adjusting to catch a 9-yard touchdown pass at the end of the second quarter. Niles Brinkley could have had better coverage on the fade route, but it was a great pass and great catch.
The problems started in the fourth quarter. Of the 249 passing yards and three touchdowns Wisconsin gave up, 205 of those came in the final 15 minutes on just six completions.
The defense surrendered six pass plays of 20 yards or longer for a combined 205 yards. Four of those big plays came in the final quarter, for a total of 145 yards, when the Gophers needed a combined 2 minutes, 10 seconds to fashion touchdown drives of 80 and 62 yards, making the final score a little more respectable.
Part of the yards was because the Badgers went to a 4-2-5 coverage so UW didn't give up any freebies, but the big play (a 60-yard completion early in the fourth) was caused when UW's safeties lost inside leverage and the corner bit on the pump fake. Think Ohio State noticed that?
Welch's hooked the ball far to the left on his 49-yard attempt from the right hash and never got another chance to redeem himself.
So desperate to improve kickoff coverage that the Badgers tried two sky kicks after the coaching staff noticed the Gophers used a lineman in their target area. Those two kicks resulted in the Gophers started at the 30 and 25-yard line. It wouldn't be a game though without the Badgers allowing a long kick return.
UW surrendered a 47-yard return by Troy Stoudermire on a kick that was two yards deep into the end zone. Ohio State is going to have a field day next week unless something can change.
Aaron Henry looks very comfortable returning punts, battling for a nine-yard return in the first quarter and showing good judgment when to and not to field punts. David Gilreath looked OK on kickoff returns, but his 26-yard dash to open the second half gave the offense a jump-start.
Brad Nortman kicked the ball better and the coverage unit was better, too, as both punts were not returned.